Slaven Bilic's six-year reign as
Croatia coach ended in frustrating fashion when a 1-0 defeat by
holders Spain knocked the Balkan country out of Euro 2012 and
left the charismatic coach wondering what might have been.
But the 43-year old from Split, who is fluent in four
languages, has a law degree and a rock band, will have few
regrets knowing he brought the best out of his team, who often
punched above their weight in major events.
The tournament in Poland and Ukraine was no exception as
Croatia were in contention for a quarter-final berth until the
last few minutes of their absorbing clash with the European
Champions, when a Jesus Navas goal sent them packing.
Croatia's "fiery madness" - the team's official Euro 2008
anthem composed by Bilic's band which epitomised their passion
on the pitch and at times the unruly behaviour of their fans in
2012 - will now make way for daily work in club football.
Bilic will take over Russian top flight side Lokomotiv
Moscow at the start of next season and, although he must be
looking forward to a fresh challenge, coaching his country
remains the most emotional endeavour of his career.
"I didn't expect this to be my last game in charge because I
thought we would get past the group stage with this phenomenal
group who've shown great character and built a fantastic
atmopshere," he told Croatian television.
"I want to congratulate the players for six years of
impeccable work and behaviour.
"I will leave nothing in the tank either profesionally or
emotionally whatever I do next but I will never be as proud as I
was while coaching my country, which is a rare privilege and
especially so for a young coach like myself," he said.
Croatia's first XI time and again showed the ability to
stand their ground against the toughest opponents but lack of
depth in the squad eventually dashed their hopes of at least
emulating their Euro 2008 achievement of making the last eight.
Inspirational playmaker Luka Modric was subdued for much of
the tournament and only showed occasional flashes of the
brilliance he has shown for Tottenham Hotspur which has made him
one of the most sought-after players in world football.
One such move, an audacious cross with the outside of his
foot, presented Ivan Rakitic with the best chance of the game
against world champions Spain but the winger directed his
close-range header straight at Iker Cassilas.
The Croatians were swiftly punished at the other end with
the clock ticking, and Italy's 2-0 win over Ireland meant the Italians went through as runners-up with group winners Spain.
Croatia's robust striker Mario Mandzukic, who scored three
of their four goals at Euro 2012, needed a suitable strike
partner to take some of the punishing workload off him.
Former Arsenal hit-man Eduardo da Silva is a pale shadow of
the player he was before his horrific injury in 2008 while
in-form Everton striker Nikica Jelavic fizzed out after a bright
start and a goal in the opening 3-1 win against the Irish.
Still, Bilic insisted he would have changed nothing in cagey
first-half performances against Italy and Spain when Croatia
needed to take more risks in order to grab those two games by
the scruff of the neck.
"We had a plan, we stuck to it and our strategy to be
aggressive worked except that we didn't take our chances against
Spain when they came our way," he said.
"I can only congratulate Italy and the Spaniards for
advancing from this tough group while we can go home with our
heads high and our pride intact."
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